Amal Maher says she wants to act her age. It’s a rather risky move, as the 30-year-old Egyptian has built her glittering career by evoking the classic sounds of the past.
Discovered as a promising talent at the tender age of 15, Maher enrolled in a music conservatory, and before long she was performing regularly at the famed Cairo Opera House.
Since then, she has released three albums of what can best be described as sophisticated pop, blending modern music sensibilities with classic influences of legendary Arabic singers such Umm Kulthum and Fairuz. It’s the kind of music to soundtrack a blissful night drive or a dinner party.
Maher's fourth album, Welad El Naharda, marks a turning point in her career. Released this year, it is her most pop-friendly offering to date, featuring elements of EDM and super-polished balladry.
“I don’t look at it as a sudden change,” she says before performing at the Mawazine Festival in Morocco. “I think it’s something more gradual.
“I do feel like I have grown in all aspects, from the personal to the artistic. I think I now know how to fully engage with the audience, whether they are older or younger. The development didn’t come from specific moments, but came naturally with experience.”
This growing confidence is best displayed in Welad El Naharda's lead single, Seket El Salama. As well as the modern musical touches, with strings replaced by synths and a dash of auto-tuned club-friendly vocals, the song made waves for its accompanying slick video, which was more preoccupied with dance performance than a standard narrative.
Maher points to the 5 million YouTube views since its May release as the perfect response to her critics. “There were people who were unsure about the whole direction I was taking,” she says. “The song has a different kind of video clip, in that it really wasn’t storyboarded. It wasn’t your usual kind where the focus is on the lyrics. It is just more moody – and the fact people are talking about it is a sign it was the right decision.”
Maher says her new style remains in line with her career aim of being an influential singer, which not only extends to her music, but also how she presents herself to her fans. The more youthful outlook, she says, makes it easier for her fan base to connect with her.
“I want to represent my generation,” she says. “As a youngster, I was always influenced by singers and they were role models, in the way I behaved and my appearance. I am aware of that now, as a singer in my own right.
“I didn’t want to give any mixed messages to my fans, in that I am so different from my video clips or on Instagram. I want it to be ‘what you see is what you get’.”
That said, Maher hasn’t ditched her vintage musical tastes completely. She says that she has already started working on a new album dedicated to the Gulf-pop style. This was inspired by her encounter with veteran Saudi Arabian singer Mohammed Abdo at a Cairo show in February.
“There are no amount of words to really describe how influential a singer like Mohammed Abdo is when it comes to what he did with his career,” she says.
“He is really a kind and generous man and gave me valuable advice about performing. He encouraged me to perform with him some songs in the Khaleeji style and I really sensed a great encouragement from the crowd. It was then that I decided to start working on this new project.”
Another old-school aspect to Maher is her slow and steady growth to stardom. She credits the time dedicated to music training in the conservatory for her natural development. It’s a vital factor, she admits, rarely afforded to television talent-show winners.
“There is this feeling that all the voices that come out from these shows are the same or generic, but I want to stress that there are also some great voices in there,” she says.
“The challenge they face is that unless you win these shows, they are not encouraged or supported after. Once the shows are done, if you are not a winner then people move on and you are essentially left to yourself.”
Despite her focus on the present, Maher says she returns to classics for a daily dose of comfort.
“I always sleep with an old movie from [television channel] Rotana Classic or to the music of Fairouz,” she says.
“I can’t really explain it, but when it comes to unwinding, these things work for me every time.”
• Next on the Mawazine Sessions, Turkish-Macedonian nasheed singer Mesut Kurtis, talks about his latest album, Tabassam.